The Japanese Nuclear Reactor Problems

March 13, 2011

I was trying to make some sense out of all the crazy stupid news reporting I was reading about the nuclear reactors that were affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. I finally happened on a blog (!) that made sense of it all. I have a little understanding of how nuclear reactors work, especially older ones like these, but only on the most basic level. The description of the events outlined on the blog post seem to ring true to me.

I’m sure there will be much hand-wringing that the designers of the plants did not make them 100 per cent safe for this scenario. It reminds me of a situation my Dad used to have to handle when he had his engineering consulting business.

His business was located in Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, and that’s where a lot of his clients were, obviously. His company was active from the 1960s through about 2005. Early on, in the 60s and 70s, he talked about designing storm sewer systems to handle “100-year” storms – the strongest storms and rainfall expected in a given period, based on observations in that area.

That area had been settled since early in the 19th century, but how good was the data from a hundred years before? What kind of baseline data did they have to predict how strong a storm might be that would only strike about once every 100 years. (And, remember, that could be twice in one year, then not again for 198 years…) There were even guesses at what a “thousand year storm” might be. Dad laughed when it looked like they were getting 100-year storms about every two or three years. It wasn’t “climate change,” it was lack of enough accurate data for a baseline.

So in Japan, here are 40-year-old reactors, designed for 7.9 earthquakes. Now they are hit by the seventh largest ever recordedseven times their design limit. Add to that the tsunami. I don’t know why that wasn’t taken into account, or if it was, and underestimated, when planning the diesel backup generator installation. The power grid is gone – just plain gone – as is transportation. This is almost as bad as bombing them, or an asteroid strike, in terms of making it impossible for the crews to do damage control.

It looks like the outer building on one reactor was breached, releasing some radioactive steam with a very short half-life. The long-term effects on people will be very small, I think.

The long-term effects on the population as a whole as a result of having to dismantle these plants, hopefully build new ones, and do all the other cleanup from the tsunami will be enormous. We’ll know more about what really happened in a few weeks, once the hysteria dies down and the reactors can be studied more carefully. It’s still a bad day for the Japanese, and for the nuclear power industry. We need energy, and nuclear is still one of the best ways to get it. The last thing we need is for the doomsayers to start running around again. It looks like the reactors in Japan, and the reactors’ crews, did what they should in the face of an incredible disaster. We should be happy they were so good at their jobs that they were able to handle the emergency so well.


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